How the Patriots Can Neutralize Tim Tebow

(Another departure from our usual wonkery.)

Tim Tebow is all the rage right now, both for his spectacular late-game comebacks and his very public professions of his faith. We’ll leave the latter alone and focus on his actions on the field.

The Denver Broncos turned to Tebow after a 1-4 start running a conventional offense under Kyle Orton. Over time, the Broncos have implemented a modified read-option offense that is built around the running and decision-making skills of Tebow.

For the uninitiated, the read-option is based around the counter-intuitive notion of not blocking at least one defender. That unblocked defender is then ‘read’ by the quarterback/ballcarrier, if the unblocked defender commits to tackling the QB, then the QB pitches the ball. If not, the QB runs it. That’s a vast simplification, and Denver doesn’t run the read-option all the time, but it’s the basis of their offense.

An option offense has a few virtues — first, it leverages the skills of your best player (because that player touches the ball every play and can run, hand off, or pass). Next, the option offense is predicated on not blocking at least one opposing player at the point of attack, which allows your other blockers to either double-team other defenders or get advantageous blocking angles. These two reasons are why you still see the option offense run at smaller schools (that have fewer high-skill players and undersized blockers). That’s why the service academies still run this offense.

So, what do the Pats need to do to neutralize Tebow?

First, stay disciplined and rotate players on defense. The option offense is frustrating to play against — its grueling to face a constant running attack and to stay disciplined enough to stick to assignments. Denver’s ability to pull off late game heroics is likely due, in part, to their ability wear out and frustrate opponents, causing mistakes. The Pats’ depth and system-oriented defense should serve them well in this game.

Second, use that high-powered offense. There are few things more painful than watching a run-first option team forced to try and play catch-up against the clock. Denver has an underrated defense that’s allowed them to keep games close while the offense wears down their opponents. If the Pats overcome that and pile up points early, this is going to be an ugly game for Denver’s offense. In addition, an out-of-sync option team can have a lot of 3-and-outs, putting further pressure on a defense which has little time to rest.

I wish Tebow nothing but the best (except for this game), and I love watching option football, but I’m skeptical this works out in the long-term for him or the Broncos. He may evolve into a more traditional QB or roleplayer, but there’s a reason you don’t see the option very often as a full-time offense in the NFL.